A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that U.S. government across three White House administrations misled the public about the 18-year campaign in Afghanistan — just as it did during the Vietnam War — making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. This contradicts a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents (Bush, Obama and Trump), military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.
The failures in the Afghanistan war, often suggesting success where it did not exist, according to thousands of pages of documents obtained by The Washington Post. The documents reveal deep frustrations about America’s conduct of the Afghanistan war, including the ever-changing U.S. strategy, the struggles to develop an effective Afghan fighting force and persistent failures to defeat the Taliban and combat corruption throughout the government.
The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, not to mention over one trillion dollars spent, according to Defense Department figures.
Investigative reporter Craig Whitlock notes that “By allowing corruption to fester, U.S. officials told interviewers, they helped destroy the popular legitimacy of the wobbly Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.”
Here we see the strategic tension between what U.S. agencies were doing with their money. The CIA was paying politicians and warlords for intelligence information, the State Department and U.S. International Development Agency were paying local power brokers for often pointless construction projects (“roads to nowhere”), and the Pentagon was paying many different interests to do many different things. These allocations simultaneously advanced different U.S. agency interests outside of a coordinated strategy.
The reporting also encapsulates America’s insane policy towards opium production (opium is a precursor for heroin). Alternating between buying opium crops and burning them, the United States has pushed many farmers into even stronger alliances with Taliban interests.
As US drug adviser to President Carter, David Musto said, because “we [went] into Afghanistan to support the opium growers,” moderate Sufi leaders in the countryside were replaced by radical ones. This was due to massive financial support from agents of the Pakistani Inter-Services, funds that came from both the United States and Saudi Arabia, which were allocated toward jihadist ends.
According to Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway of The Washington Post, “The United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system’s core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.”
Keep in mind this was a disaster that President Donald Trump inherited. Yet he said: “Our troops will fight to win” in Afghanistan. Apparently, it has been just the opposite. “Trump ran on ending these endless wars,” tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “But he’s sending more troops to the Middle East, making yet another war there more likely.”
After the Pentagon last week officially denied a Wall Street Journal report that the Trump administration is weighing a plan to send thousands of additional troops to the Middle East, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that the Defense Department is in fact considering “changes to our force posture” in the Middle East.